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4th Circuit revives Hagerstown worker’s disability-bias claim

A divided federal appeals court has revived a woman’s Americans with Disabilities Act claim that she was fired from a Hagerstown call center after requesting a reduced work schedule due to a severe back injury from a car crash.

In its published 2-1 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Terri Cowgill has sufficiently alleged that she met or exceeded First Data Technologies Inc.’s expectations of employees for years but was nevertheless terminated for purported infractions after telling the company of her disability.

The 4th Circuit said Friday that it will be for a jury to decide whether these alleged infractions – hanging up on two customers — were genuine and constituted fireable offenses or were a pretext for illegal disability discrimination by First Data, a Colorado-based credit and debit card processing company.

The U.S. District Court in Baltimore had dismissed Cowgill’s lawsuit after concluding the company’s termination was justified despite her years of glowing performance reviews.

In sending the case back for trial, the 4th Circuit said trial judges must give plaintiffs like Cowgill “the benefit of all inferences” when deciding whether to grant a defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

The record shows Cowgill received fine performance ratings from when she joined the company in 2004 until her final reviews in 2014 and 2015, when she received the company’s highest mark, the 4th Circuit said.

“If an employer genuinely believed that one of its employees was performing poorly on metrics the employer perceives as important (as First Data claims here), it seems unlikely that it would rate the employee’s performance highly,” Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for the majority. “Yet that is what happened here.”

First Data’s attorney, Charles B. Jellinek, declined to comment on the 4th Circuit’s decision. Jellinek is with Brian Cave Leighton Paisner in St. Louis.

Cowgill’s attorney, E. Patrick McDermott, did not immediately respond Monday to a message seeking comment on the court’s ruling. McDermott is an Annapolis solo practitioner.

According to her complaint, Cowgill submitted her request for reduced hours on Jan. 20, 2015, due to injuries she suffered in a car crash 15 days earlier.

Though the company accepted her request, Cowgill claimed she was warned by a supervisor a month later that her absences could result in dismissal. The warning was subsequently withdrawn, but a human-resources officer advised Cowgill to do what she needed to do keep her job, the complaint stated.

In August 2015, Cowgill sought an extension of her reduced hours. Her supervisor greeted the request by referencing a call Cowgill received from a customer on July 10 that she allegedly ended abruptly in violation of company rules requiring employees to exercise courtesy and restraint with callers, according to the complaint.

Cowgill was placed on a 90-day “Improvement Action Plan,” essentially a probationary period during which any similar act could result in termination. The plan called for Cowgill to receive coaching, which she alleges was never given.

Cowgill was fired on Sept. 15, 2015, after a customer allegedly complained that Cowgill had prematurely ended a call.

In dismissing the lawsuit, the district court accepted the company’s defense that Cowgill’s termination was clearly justified by her conduct with callers and not based on her disability.

But the 4th Circuit said the proximity between Cowgill’s back injury, the alleged infractions and her termination raise a genuine jury question as to whether her firing was a pretext for illegal discrimination. The 4th Circuit also cited Cowgill’s allegations that prematurely ending calls had never by itself resulted in termination and that other, non-disabled employees on IAPs had received the mandated coaching to improve performance.

“A reasonable factfinder could conclude that First Data searched for and found the single nugget of misconduct that allowed it to place Cowgill on an IAP and set the course for her termination,” wrote Gregory, who was joined by Judge Stephanie D. Thacker. “It is hard to believe that a company that is concerned about curbing call avoidance would (allegedly) fail to follow through when – pursuant to its own plan – … help is required to improve an employee’s work performance.”

In dissent, Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr. agreed with the district court and said Cowgill’s history of laudatory performance reviews does not displace her more recent failure to comply with the company’s IAP.

“One may question the need to terminate an employee for violating one Improvement Action Plan after years of good performance,” Quattlebaum wrote.

“But our role is not that of a ‘super-personnel department,’” he added. “Our role is to determine if there is a genuine issue of material fact concerning the elements of a disability discrimination claim. And, in my view, the record reveals no genuine issues related to the fact that Cowgill was expected to comply with an Improvement Action Plan yet failed to do so at the time of discharge.”

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in Terri Cowgill v. First Data Technologies Inc., No. 21-1543.